Virginia Tech’s home football game Saturday against North Carolina will start shortly after 12:30, ideal for newspaper hacks fighting early deadlines, anathema to fans who crave more tailgate time and believe Lane Stadium rocks best after dark.
Perhaps most troubling to Tech faithful: Next Saturday’s contest against Pittsburgh, scheduled to kick at noon, will be the fourth consecutive home date to start at 1:30 p.m., or earlier, leaving just two games at Lane Stadium this season that could land in a 3:30 or later television slot.
The first is Duke on Oct. 26, and that matchup has noon/12:30 written all over it. Eight of the teams’ nine clashes since Tech joined the ACC have kicked off then, the exception a 5:30 start in Blacksburg five years ago.
The Hokies’ home finale is Nov. 16 versus Maryland, undefeated and ranked 25th this week. So if both teams continue to play well, that game might prove attractive enough for ESPN to select for a later start.
If Duke and Maryland don’t fit that bill, Tech would have its first season without a 3:30-or-later home game since 1988, Frank Beamer’s second year as coach. In ’88, all five home games started at 1 p.m.
This week I spoke with several officials familiar with ACC/ESPN protocol, and they outlined several reasons for the Hokies' rash of early home games, some in the school's control, others not.
* Athletic director Jim Weaver asked that Tech not host a Thursday night game this season – the Hokies had staged a Thursday nighter for 11 consecutive seasons. Weaver assured ticket-holders irked at his decision that the hiatus was temporary, and sure enough, he’s requested two home Thursday night games for 2014 – there’s no guarantee he’ll get them. Moreover, the Hokies are scheduled to host Ohio State on Labor Day night in 2015.
* For the one start time Weaver controlled, the home opener against Western Carolina, he elected 1:30 p.m. The game was shown only on ESPN3, and in such cases, the host school picks the time. Weaver and assistant athletic director for ticketing Sandy Smith have said earlier starts are more convenient for fans traveling long distances to Blacksburg from regions such as Hampton Roads.
* Virginia Tech’s home schedule to date hasn’t been all that appealing to ESPN. For example, had North Carolina (1-3) defeated either South Carolina or Georgia Tech, Saturday’s kickoff might well have been later.
* Though 4-1, the Hokies are unranked. Plus, they're coming off a disappointing 7-6 season.
* The Big Ten Network and the Big 12’s deal with Fox Sports have created more vacancies for ESPN at noon. For example, Saturday’s marquee ACC game – Maryland at No. 8 Florida State – is set for noon on ESPN.
* The ACC’s regional network game of the week has long started at noon or 12:30.
As Michael Strickland, the ACC’s associate commissioner for football, reminds, the league’s top game needs to rate among the nation’s best to be scheduled for one of ESPN/ABC’s three prime-time slots. If form holds, Florida State-Clemson on Oct. 19, and Miami-Florida State on Nov. 2 could qualify.
Moreover, since the Southeastern Conference’s arrangement with CBS precludes any direct competition with that network’s 3:30 telecasts, other SEC games have to be played at noon or at night – the debut of the SEC’s own network next season likely will open some prime-time spots for the ACC and others on ESPN channels.
Another impending boon for the conference: Notre Dame’s contract to play five ACC teams annually commences next season, and many (most?) of those contests figure to start at 3:30 or later.
Perhaps of little solace to Tech fans: At least the Hokies aren't playing at 11 a.m. Many Central time zone schools start games at that hour to accommodate television. For example, this will be the third consecutive season that the Texas-Oklahoma game, the Red River Rivalry, starts at 11 a.m. Central time in Dallas.
ESPN/ABC’s control of college football schedules frustrates many, but as Strickland said, the network pays “handsome” rights fees for the privilege – more than $240 million per year to the ACC alone.
Here’s a season-by-season look at Tech’s regular-season schedules dating to its 2004 entry into the ACC.
* 2012: Four of six home games started before 2 p.m., with Georgia Tech and Florida State in prime time. Overall, seven of 12 contests kicked at noon or 12:30.
* 2011: Ten of 12 games, five of six at Lane, after 3 p.m.
* 2010: Half of 12 dates 3:30 or later, but only two of seven at home.
* 2009: Four of six home games, eight of 12 overall, 3:30 or later.
* 2008: Nine of 12 after 3 p.m., three of six at home.
* 2007: Three of seven home 3:30 or later, four of 12 overall.
* 2006: Overall, seven of 12 after 3 p.m., four of eight at Lane. Five of the 12 at 7 p.m., or later.
* 2005: Five of six home at 3:30 or later, seven of 11 total. Overall, five started after 7 p.m.
* 2004: Among seven home games, only a Thursday-nighter against Maryland kicked after 1 p.m. Overall, nine of 12 started at noon or 1 p.m.; three kicked after 7:30 p.m.
In his online column posted Friday, Tech radio voice Bill Roth charted the number of 12 or 12:30 starts for each ACC team since 2009. Here’s his list.
North Carolina 22
Virginia Tech 19
Georgia Tech 18
North Carolina State 17
Boston College 16
Wake Forest 15
Florida State 12
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